“The world is a cruel place and it’s cruelest to the weak. They are bullied, sacrificed, mocked and murdered and they die in agony”Mary Queen of Scot to King Francis II
Those were the closing remarks of Wendel Alexander, the attorney who represented Tianzhao ‘Alex’ Feng, the Chinese national who pleaded guilty to burning down the XPZ Supermarket, Antigua in 2021.
Mr. Feng’s act of arson, and perhaps not intentionally, caused details to be revealed of his repugnant living and working conditions while employed as a storeroom clerk at the supermarket.
Mr. Alexander insists that his client’s case was one of human trafficking. “This is a case almost tantamount to human trafficking. It has all the hallmarks that what he has endured amounts to human trafficking,” he told the court. According to Mr. Alexander, Mr. Feng told him how close he became to committing suicide.
After Mr. Feng was sentenced to just over one year in prison on Wednesday, he told High Court Judge Justice Annmarie Smith that he did not wish to return to his home country in China. Through the use of a Chinese interpreter, he asked the judge where he would live after he was free from prison. His attorney said that they could consider getting him refugee status.
His request was an indication of the trauma that he had faced during his life, a glimpse of which was documented in a Social Investigation Report (SIR) produced by Alvin Jarvis, Senior Probation Officer at the Probation Unit. The information in the report is from interviews conducted with Mr. Feng, senior managers and former staff members of XPZ and persons within the Chinese community.
Of the one (1) year, nine (9) months and 23 days that Mr. Feng has been imprisoned, he has experienced better living conditions than in his former living quarters at the back of the XPZ supermarket. “What is significant is where the probation officer says when a person can elevate his conditions at His Majesty’s Prison over his living arrangement, this is reason enough to stand up and take notice,” the judge quoted.
She said based on the report, Mr. Feng was a victim of “cruel and inhumane working and living conditions coupled with physical abuse”.
The 30-year-old was one of eight (8) Chinese nationals who worked at the facility and who were made to live there. Six (6) of them resided at the back of the supermarket and two others lived upstairs the warehouse. “The more he complained about his sordid living environment infested with rats, roaches and other insects, is the more he was treated like an outcast and received little attention and as a result became ill,” Mr. Jarvis wrote.
According to the SIR, Mr. Feng said although he has had no visitors, his accommodation at His Majesty’s Prison is “by far more comfortable”.
How did Tianzhao Feng arrive in Antigua
Tianzhao Feng is an only child. His father is 70 years old and lives in China and his mother is deceased. He was born in Henan Province Shalin, China and only attained a primary school education because of hardship.
He worked as a messenger for the military outfit until one day when his uncle proposed an opportunity that he felt would improve his life. After negotiation between his uncle and Zhang Xiaoping, the CEO of XPZ, Mr. Feng said travel arrangements were made for him to go to St. Lucia.
“During the period of negotiation, he was asked to sign documents which he did willingly but admitted that he did not know its full content,” Mr. Jarvis wrote in his report.
After arriving in St. Lucia, Mr. Feng claimed that his passport was taken away from him and he was put to work in a department store that bore some similarity to XPZ in Antigua. In 2017, he said he was transferred to Antigua against his will and his passport was taken away again.
It was not long before Mr. Feng said some of his Chinese colleagues and his employer’s wife began to mistreat him and physically beat him. “The more he complained about his sordid living environment infested with rats, roaches and other insects, is the more he was treated like an outcast and received little attention and as a result became ill,” the report noted.
He reported having back pains, kidney failure and hydrocele. When he would go for a doctor’s visit, he said he was always accompanied by someone from upper management and was not allowed to speak for himself.
“No human being in the modern 21st century should be subject to that type of treatment,” his attorney told the court.
After Mr. Feng surrendered himself to local police, it was discovered that his passport had expired, he had no work permit and no medical benefit or social security certificates. Mr. Feng worked seven days a week for an average of 12 hours and was paid EC $900 each month. Although he has never had a social security of medical benefits card, he said monies were being deducted from his salary. He also did not receive a promised salary increase after working for Mr. Xiaoping for three years.
As a result of his outspokenness about his treatment and finances, he did not get along too well with his countrymen and said shared a much closer relationship with local staff. Local employees described him as “jovial” and “high spirited” in the report.
They said without being able to understand the Chinese language there appeared times of friction between Mr. Feng and the other workers. “Members of staff were also aware of his problems with his medical complaint, alcoholic tendencies, gambling and his regular visits to night clubs. Otherwise, he was a pleasant person to be around and one of the more diligent workers,” the report highlighted.
His boss on the other hand described Mr. Feng as “crazy and bad” during his interview with the probation unit. He also did not express any forgiveness for Mr. Feng but asked for fairness in the court’s judgement. He added that he had received several threatening calls from his former worker from prison.
Additionally, the court heard that Mr. Feng had no intimate relationship and spent his money gambling, hoping to win enough money for a plane ticket back to China or somewhere else. He also started drinking alcohol regularly “to escape from his physical and emotional pain”.
His behaviour, Mr. Jarvis noted in his assessment, could have been subtle ways he was trying to reach out for help.
The night of the fire
The night the fire started Mr. Feng had been intoxicated. He returned to XPZ after consuming alcohol and set the mattress in his living quarters on fire, then went to the supermarket and did the same.
The other residents were awakened by the sound of glass breaking and plastic burning while others were awakened by their coworkers. Residents observed his room was engulfed in smoke and that his bed was on fire. Someone called 911 and residents tried to out the fire but it was too much for them. Residents lost most, if not all, their personal belongings to include their passports and other IDs. A vehicle belonging to XPZ was also destroyed by the fire which lasted for a few hours.
Mr. Feng went into hiding for several days then approached a civilian on June 10th 2021 and asked them to call the police. He offered to pay the person $20 for that phone call. The police arrived shortly after and the accused was taken into custody.
An investigation into the fire noted that the exterior of XPZ suffered major damage while the roof caved in the interior. There was mass loss in the interior while other areas had smoke and heat damage. The fire department concluded that the origin of fire was due to arson. XPZ’s CEO said he suffered approximately $10 million in damages which he knows Mr. Feng will not be able to pay back.
Antigua and Barbuda’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons (Prevention) Act criminalizes sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribes penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine for offenses involving an adult victim and up to 25 years’ imprisonment and a fine for those involving a child victim.